Should the U.S. be willing to go to war to defend Taiwan?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

For the past 70 years, Taiwan has existed in a geopolitical gray area. Internally, it governs itself like an independent nation, complete with a strong economy and thriving democratic system. But China has always insisted that the island is part of its territory, a stance that has made other world powers hesitant to recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Chinese leaders have long expressed a desire to bring Taiwan, which sits about 100 miles off China's coast, back under the full control of the mainland communist government. President Xi Jinping reiterated China's commitment to “reunification” in a speech over the weekend. Xi repeatedly said he sought a “peaceful” way to bring Taiwan back into the fold, but some global affairs experts believe the threat of a military invasion is becoming increasingly likely.

For decades, the United States has pursued a policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to Taiwan, building an economic and military partnership with its government while still officially recognizing China’s claim that the island is part of its territory. Part of that ambiguity involves never providing a definitive answer to the question of whether the U.S. would be willing to use military force to defend the island if China launched an invasion.

Why there’s debate

America’s noncommittal position on Taiwan has helped maintain a shaky status quo for many years, and the Biden administration has said it intends to continue the strategy. But worrying signs about the possibility of China trying to take the island raises a question that could someday demand a concrete answer: Is the U.S. willing to go to war with China to protect Taiwan?

Some lawmakers and policy analysts have called on President Biden to make a commitment to use military force to stop a potential Chinese invasion, in part because they believe doing so is the best way to prevent one from happening. They argue that no Chinese leader would dare attack Taiwan if they were certain it would spark a war with a world superpower. Some also argue that Taiwan is too strategically important for the U.S. and its allies to allow it to fall under Chinese control if deterrents failed.

Others say, regrettable as a Chinese invasion would be, it’s not worth risking conflict with China to defend the island’s independence. Limited actions over Taiwan, they argue, could easily escalate into a full-scale war that could cost countless lives and threaten the global order. Some military experts also believe the U.S. would probably lose a battle to defend Taiwan, meaning thousands of American soldiers could die without changing the outcome.

What’s next

President Biden has reportedly agreed to hold a virtual summit with Xi before the end of the year. China’s continued pressure campaign against Taiwan will likely be among the many contentious topics discussed by the two leaders.


A firm commitment to defend Taiwan is the best way to prevent an invasion

“The United States needs to remove the ambiguity about whether it would come to Taiwan’s defense. Uncertainty about U.S. intentions raises the risk of war. … President Biden should declare that, though we will not support a Taiwanese declaration of independence from China, we will defend the island if it is attacked.” — Max Boot, Washington Post

The U.S. must accept it has nothing to gain from defending Taiwan

“Bluntly put, America should refuse to be drawn into a no-win war with Beijing. It needs to be said up front: there would be no palatable choice for Washington if China finally makes good on its decades-long threat to take Taiwan by force.” — Daniel L. Davis, defense priorities senior fellow, Guardian

The U.S. should maintain its noncommittal position as long as it can

“As a superpower, the United States should preserve flexibility in its global security relationships. It also is not even obvious that Taiwan’s body politic would welcome an explicit security guarantee from the United States.” — Therese Shaheen, National Review

Taiwan is too important to U.S. interests to let it be taken by the Chinese

“Abandoning Taiwan in the face of a Chinese military assault would be a monumental disaster. ... The U.S. cannot afford to see a country that occupies vital strategic space in the Western Pacific subdued by Beijing.” — Hal Brands, Bloomberg

War with China would pose an existential threat to the U.S.

“Stumbling into a shooting war over Taiwan is akin to opening a Pandora’s box, and it would make the last 20 years of conflict in the Middle East look like an uneventful peacekeeping mission. A fight between Washington and Beijing could also escalate to the nuclear level, particularly if the Chinese Communist Party determines that the use of such weapons is the only thing standing in the way of a humiliating defeat.” — Daniel R. DePetris, NBC News

America has a duty to protect the free world from authoritarianism

“The United States and its allies have built and defended a rules-based system over the past 75 years that has produced unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom globally. I don’t want to trade that in for a world in which Americans stand by as revisionist autocracies like China gobble up neighbors by military force.” — Matthew Kroenig, Foreign Policy

The U.S. also has diplomatic tools to deter China from invading

“To further demonstrate U.S. resolve, Biden should tell Beijing that any more threats of force against Taiwan’s participation in the democracy summit will trigger immediate diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and an official statement of Washington’s new ‘One China, One Taiwan’ policy. Beijing must understand that war would mean instant Taiwan independence.” — Joseph Bosco, The Hill

The best way to defend Taiwan is through investment, not military threats

“Hyping the threat that China poses to Taiwan does Beijing's work for it. Taiwan's people need reasons for confidence in their own future, not just reminders of their vulnerabilities. If American policy makers want to help Taiwan, they will need to go beyond focusing on the military threat. They need to modernize the U.S.-Taiwan economic relationship, help Taiwan diversify its trade ties and provide platforms for Taiwan to earn dignity and respect on the world stage.” — Richard Bush, Bonnie Glaser and Ryan Hass, NPR

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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